‘I hope that this summer can change people’s attitudes to women’s sport, and help to give girls real aspirational role models’, says Clare Balding. It sounds like a big ask, but perhaps it could happen. With the BBC having launched a packed schedule of live women’s sport, Balding will be in front of the camera for much of its programming, alongside fellow presenters Gabby Logan and Hazel Irvine.
When it comes to female sport, Balding is one of its most vocal supporters. And, as a former leading amateur jockey herself, she knows full well what it’s like competing at the top level against both men and women.
There are two central problems in women’s sport, however, and they go hand in hand. The first is the lack of coverage (‘it’s a really basic thing; you have to have regular reporting’). Secondly, the lack of funding. ‘Quite a lot of the top-level sportswomen have secondary careers, because they have to. Ama (Agbeze, the former England netball captain) is a trained lawyer, and so is Eni Aluko, who is now playing for Juventus. Even the England women’s rugby team, who are now are ‘professional’ contracts; it barely pays the rent. I’m certainly not arguing that women in sport should be paid what footballers are paid… but there is equally a level that is somewhat more than £30k a year, that could allow you the luxury of doing something that supports your sporting career.’
Much of the funding which would allow sportswomen to do that comes from sponsors and ticket sales. And for both of those an audience – preferably a live one – is vital. ‘Making women’s sport prime time, as the BBC are doing this summer, is massive. It makes a big difference’, says Balding.
Once sponsors, as well as the media, realise that there is an audience for a sport, that can be transformative. ‘Quite often the sponsors, the financial institutions, are way ahead of anyone else. Look at the boat race; BNY Mellon were the ones who insisted that the women’s boat race come to the Thames, and that it had the same conditions as the men’s. That happened quickly in a very traditional sport. If you get the right brands involved – brands who recognise the modern world – they won’t tolerate a situation where women aren’t taken seriously. They are the ones driving change, and the governing bodies that are responding to it, and I think that’s fascinating.’
Of course, we are talking about sport here. But Balding thinks that there is more to this than meets the eye. ‘It’s a weird thing, as soon as people have to pay for a woman, they don’t want them. Our whole society – not just sport – is based on either low paid women, or female volunteers. As soon as you have to pay people, everyone gravitates towards the men. And I still struggle with that.’
There are some sports where women have been able to make their own way to the top. Sailing and equestrianism are prime examples. ‘Women have financed themselves. They’ve turned around and said: “You can’t tell me I can’t do this, because I’ve got the boat or I’ve got the horse, and I will show you that I can achieve this”.’ Sadly, that’s far from achievable for the majority of women. If you want outside funding, ‘you need to have people, or banks, with a vision. Who’ll say: Yes, we’ll support you.’
Balding grew up surrounded by horseracing; one of her television jobs was as a racing reporter, and it’s a world that she is still very close to. It’s no wonder then that she’s also been keeping her eye on female jockeys. ‘This winter has been a transformation for horse racing. Look at the best women riders in the past: Nina Carberry and Katie Walsh. They didn’t turn professional because they didn’t think they could make a living from it. Whereas Bryony Frost has just said: “This is what I’m going to do. Watch me.” And Rachael Blackmore too.’
The difficulty, thought, is getting trainers and owners to take a punt on a woman. ‘What was most important for me at Cheltenham was that two of those female race wins were Grade 1 races. Because how often have you seen a woman riding in a Grade 1 or Group 1 race, and how often has a female jockey been on the favourite for any of those races? The three women who’ve ridden in the Investec Derby have all been on the outsider, and I think between them they’ve beaten one horse home. That’s not a real chance. So I do hope that the likes of Josephine Gordon and other really talented female flat jockeys are given the opportunities in these big races in future.’
Balding’s father, Ian, famously trained Mill Reef, who won the Derby in 1971, and there’s a picture of Clare, aged about two, sitting on the young horse’s back. This year her brother Andrew, who is also a trainer, has his hopes pinned on his runner Bangkok in the Investec Derby at Epsom on Saturday.
‘Andrew wasn’t born until Mill Reef had gone off to stud, but there was a film made about Mill Reef called Something to Brighten the Morning, and we used to be made to watch that over and over again. So obviously Andrew was very aware of that. This one horse changed our lives, he really did.’
That, says Balding, is what makes this one race, the Derby, so very special. ‘For Andrew and the yard, to win the Derby would be everything. It’s not just career defining for a trainer, it’s life defining. It’s like an actor winning an Oscar. You will always be described as ‘the Derby winning trainer’; you will always have achieved that.’
What is it that’s so special about the Derby though, compared to any other classic race? ‘It really is that Holy Grail; that thing you seek. You only get one chance at it every year, and it takes an exceptional horse to win it’, she explains’. ‘Even someone like Aidan O’Brien who has won it six times, he still wants to win it – to the extent that he has seven horses running in it this year. That pull is just extraordinary.’
When it comes to Andrew Balding’s Derby entry, Bangkok, he is more than just a talented youngster. He was – as you might deduce from his name – bought by the Thai owner of Leicester City football club, Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, who died in October last year, and he runs in the club’s colours of blue and white. ‘I’m desperate for Bangkok to win the Derby. It would be amazing for [his jockey] Silvestre de Sousa, because he’s a really hard-working jockey. But there’s also a special emotional thing behind Bangkok because of what happened, and I would think he has lots of Leicester City fans behind him, too.’
Balding isn’t simply a spectator; she is also on the committee of Epsom Downs Racecourse, meaning she’s involved in the minutiae of running their race days, which she loves. An important part of that is encouraging new people into the sport. ‘One of my guests for the Derby this year is [Today presenter] Mishal Husain, who has never been racing before. So hopefully after this weekend, when the racing tips are given on the Today programme, she’ll have an interest in them. A lot of people just don’t understand racing, so it is an alienating sport. But once they go and get close to it, they realise how beautiful thoroughbreds are, and how fast and interesting the racing is.’
So will this summer be as transformative as Balding would like? One thing’s for sure: if she can translate her passion for racing into the broader arena of women’s sport, leading sportswomen everywhere will be cheering her on.
Investec, specialist bank and asset manager, sponsors the Investec Derby Festival on 31 May and 1 June, investec.com/derby